Leaked letters: Federal authorities advised vax exemptions were Victoria’s responsibility

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Federal government officials told Tennis Australia the Victorian government was responsible for assessing vaccine exemptions, according to leaked correspondence that shows Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton declared people with a prior infection could enter Victoria quarantine-free.

The new letters also show federal officials declined to check exemption applications in advance of travellers boarding planes, which could have avoided the need for Novak Djokovic’s paperwork to be examined for the first time only when he arrived at Melbourne Airport.

Tennis Australia chief Craig Tiley and Novak Djokovic.Credit:Getty Images

The 20-time grand slam winner was granted an exemption to play at the Australian Open by Tennis Australia and the Victorian government. However, federal border officials blocked his entry on the basis that a COVID-19 infection in the past six months was not grounds for him to enter Australia as an unvaccinated person.

The leaked documents show Tennis Australia was in weekly discussions with the federal Home Affairs Department.

On November 10, Allison Cairns, an adviser to Australian Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly, wrote to Tennis Australia, which had been asking whether players who were not fully vaccinated would be permitted entry.

“Medical exemptions from vaccination will be at the discretion of the state or territory, so it would probably be good to touch base with the state of arrival earlier rather than later to determine if any will be an issue,” Dr Cairns wrote.

However, later in November, letters from Health Minister Greg Hunt and another departmental official explicitly state people who were recently infected will not be allowed into the country. The Victorian government asked Mr Tiley to explain the letters after The Age and Herald revealed them last week. Tennis boss Craig Tiley has not publicly addressed the later letters from Mr Hunt.

Hours before Djokovic arrived in Melbourne, federal officials contacted the Victorian government. The Victorian government claimed federal authorities wanted Victoria to sponsor his application for quarantine-free entry, which Victoria said it rejected. The Morrison government denies this and said it only contacted Victoria to seek more proof of his medical claims.

The federal advice to Tennis Australia aligns with statements made by Prime Minister Scott Morrison on the day Djokovic arrived.

Asked whether the world No. 1 had received an exemption, Mr Morrison said on January 5: “Well, that is a matter for the Victorian government. They have provided him with an exemption to come to Australia, and so we then act in accordance with that decision … That’s how it works. States provide exemptions for people to enter on those bases.”

Hours after these comments, Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews released a statement saying that while the Victorian government and Tennis Australia might permit unvaccinated players, “No individual competing at the Australian Open will be afforded any special treatment.”

Djokovic was blocked by Australian Border Force hours later.

Tennis Australia’s chief medical officer, Carolyn Broderick, wrote to Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton on November 22 asking about an “urgent” issue related to quarantine-free travel for players who have had a recent infection.

Professor Sutton responded on December 2: “Anyone with a history of recent COVID-19 infection (defined as within 6 months) and who can provide appropriate evidence of this medical history, is exempt from quarantine obligations upon arrival in Victoria from overseas.”

The new correspondence explains the private frustration of Tennis Australia administrators who believe the Morrison government has selectively leaked letters to create the impression that the status of recently infected players was clear-cut. The tennis officials believe there was shifting advice and unclear information on government websites.

Tennis Australia also asked federal authorities to review the exemptions of players three days before they boarded planes to avoid a Djokovic-style airport interrogation.

“In particular, it is the ability to review vaccination certificates/exemptions ahead of the 72 hour window that is most pressing for us, as we would like to give players some comfort over a process to be followed to ensure any issues can be dealt with well in advance of their journey to Australia,” Tennis Australia wrote to federal departments for Health and Home Affairs.

In response, senior federal Health Department official Andrew Godkin said on November 17: “[Australian Travel Declaration] and vaccination information is required for jurisdictions to manage travellers on arrival. Health and Home Affairs are unable to provide or review certificates. Certificates are reviewed at check in.”

The confidential letters between Tennis Australia and government officials is revealed amid the backdrop of an impending legal challenge against Djokovic’s deportation, which has prompted a diplomatic feud with his come country, Serbia, and media attention around the world.

Earlier on Sunday, the Morrison government failed in a bid to gain two extra days to ready its case against Djokovic.

Djokovic’s bid to overturn his deportation is due to be heard on Monday, but Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews applied to the Federal Circuit Court for the hearing to be heard on Wednesday. Judge Anthony Kelly refused the request.

The Morrison government has been contacted about the letters.

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